Stefan Collini

Stefan Collini is the author of Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, What Are Universities For? and The Nostalgic Imagination: History in English Criticism. His edition of Orwell’s Selected Essays was published in 2021. He is an emeritus professor of intellectual history and English literature at Cambridge.

Have Britain​’s leading intellectuals all been related to one another? While the answer to the question in that bald form is clearly no, a suspicion persists that in the past 150 years a higher proportion of intellectual figures of note in this country have been interconnected by ties of blood and marriage than has been the case elsewhere. It is not easy to turn this suspicion into a...

Mainly Puddling: Thomas Carlyle’s Excesses

Stefan Collini, 14 December 2023

By​ 1875 the eighty-year-old Thomas Carlyle was ready to die. In fact, he was rather looking forward to death, at least officially, more than once referring to it as ‘release’. To judge by the sixty letters to his brother that Carlyle wrote (or, rather, dictated, his own hand having become too unsteady) between December 1875 and March 1879, there was much to be released from....

Where to Draw the Line: Why do we pay tax?

Stefan Collini, 19 October 2023

Atax system​ is a political philosophy expressed in numbers. Although the introduction of a tax can seem to be just a matter of brute politics, public acceptance of a new imposition is affected by the extent to which a justification can be provided. Elements of economic theory usually figure in the argument, but there are also widely held, albeit conflicting, moral intuitions to appeal to,...



1 December 2022

I can well understand why Sharon Footerman was puzzled by my assertion that in 1960 Oxford and Cambridge ‘abandoned Latin as an entrance requirement’ (Letters, 5 January). Nonetheless, both universities did, after much controversy, take this decision in May 1960. The key word is ‘requirement’: until 1960 no student could matriculate at Oxford without a qualification in Latin; after 1960...

Teachers want to engage the interests of students, while, for larger political reasons, people want to encounter individuals who are in some major dimension ‘like’ themselves – whether as political representatives, or teachers, or, more ambiguously, as authors. Yet one of the most important functions of an education in a humanities subject is to introduce students to worlds that are different from the one they think they know, and chronological and cultural distance are among the most important forms of such difference. In some cases this argument may involve retaining traditional and now unfashionable texts; in others it may justify ‘rebalancing’ a selection by including historically neglected authors or genres. Either way, the search for ‘identification’ – with a character, a story or a writer – may be an incitement to youthful reading, but a too-easy endorsement of this quest soon impoverishes a syllabus.

The Terrifying Vrooom: Empsonising

Colin Burrow, 15 July 2021

Reading an Empson essay is like being taken for a drive by an eccentric uncle in a terrifyingly powerful old banger. There are disturbing stains on the upholstery and an alarming whiff of whisky in the...

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George Orwell is commonly invoked as the ideal role model for the intellectual: feisty, independent, outspoken and contrarian, active in the public sphere, and famous. So it’s a surprise to...

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Athenian View

Michael Brock, 12 March 1992

In seven of the nine chapters in this fine book Dr Collini depicts the denizens of the Athenaeum in its great days. T.H. Huxley, having left his umbrella at Matthew Arnold’s, asks his...

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Burrinchini’s Spectre

Peter Clarke, 19 January 1984

Time was when Clio had a seamless garment: but that was before the division of labour set in. Prefixless history is now condescendingly thought of as ‘straight’ history and her...

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